I Have “Agency Disease”: A Confession

Alright, let’s just get this on the table up front. I have a disease. OK, it’s not a real disease that affects my body, or threatens my health in any way. But when it flares up, it does affect both the way I work and the work that I produce. You see, I have “Agency Disease,” an admittedly made-up affliction of the ego from which many in our business unknowingly, or stubbornly, suffer.

I had Agency Disease long before I knew I had it. And I’ve certainly spread it to others. Diagnosing it was done with the help of many of my co-workers and clients, and partly the self-knowledge that comes with age. In this three-part series, I’ll explore the symptoms of this made-up affliction, discuss how to go about living with it, and look for a possible cure. It is part personal confession, part warning, and part hope for the future.

The specific symptoms of Agency Disease are as varied as the people who work in our business. But each flare-up is, in some way, an example of our ego getting the best of us. What follows are a few of the most common symptoms I’ve experienced … perhaps you recognize them.


We forget we’re in a service business.
What attracted me, and many of my peers, to the agency business was the opportunity to make cool stuff and get paid for it. And that’s where our focus was … making cool, award-winning stuff. But when that’s what you’re after, anything that gets in the way of making cool stuff becomes the enemy — timelines, budgets, internal dynamics, client preferences, brand guidelines, etc. But here’s the thing it took me (too many) years to realize — we’re not in the “cool stuff” business. We’re in the client service business. If our client wants and needs cool stuff, then great, the planets align and we get our candy. But often what the client really needs is more foundational. It’s not flashy, but it’s effective. And if that’s what they need, then that’s what we should deliver. Because the work doesn’t belong to us … it belongs to the client. The candy can wait.

We expect the agency-client relationship to be a balanced one.
I’m embarrassed to say how many times I’ve heard some version of this sentiment: “If the client would just get out of our way, we could really help them.” And I’ve certainly said something to that effect on more than one occasion. But I was dead wrong to say it. I was the chef throwing a fit in the kitchen because my customer was special ordering the butter sauce on the side and substituting my signature three-cheese potatoes for bland veggies. But while I was upset about the persnickety customer at table 12, what I didn’t know was that customer had a dangerous dairy allergy. We want desperately to help our clients succeed, but we often don’t have the whole story, and those barriers the client keeps throwing in our way are there for a reason. They know things we don’t. They have the whole story. And they don’t always owe us an explanation.

The best agency-client relationships are true partnerships, yes. But we are not equal partners. The agency works for the client. The client is putting their name, their reputation, and their money on the line. We are hired to help. Sometimes that means being the expert who swoops in and saves the day with a brilliant and sophisticated dish; other times it means happily substituting some asparagus.

We start worshipping our own brilliance.
“As you can clearly see from our proprietary Inverted Meta-Consumer Messaging Curve, the Stage-Three Prospect passes out of the Consideration Phase and nears the entrance to the Purchase Portal … yada yada, look at my brain, yada yada.”

We’ve all read some cousin of that sentence before. I’ve personally written my fair share. And if you didn’t throw up in your mouth while reading it, you, my friend, may have Agency Disease. Marketing is nuanced, yes. And marketing can get complicated, certainly. But here’s a secret: A lot of what we do isn’t nuanced or complicated. But in order to feed this disease of the ego, we dress it up with fancy-sounding, jargon-spewing, textbook speak.

RELATED: Enough with the fluff 

If we can set our ego aside, this much becomes clearer: If it is complicated, best not to further complicate it with a bunch of words people don’t understand. Simple, straightforward words are the way to go. And if it’s not complicated, keep it that way.
There are countless other symptoms, but hopefully you’re starting to see the pattern. Now that I’ve been knowingly living with my fake-but-very-real disease for a while, I see it all over. This series is a confession of sorts, yes. But hopefully it’s more than that. Hopefully it’s a call for me, my fellow associates at Two Rivers, and my peers at agencies everywhere to recognize that, if left untreated, this sickness can affect our ability to serve our clients and help them achieve their goals. Again, Agency Disease is an affliction of the ego. But the best agencies set their egos aside … because it’s not about making us look good — it’s about making our clients look good.

About Drew Jones

As the managing director of the Two Rivers Marketing creative team, Drew nurtures ideas into creative expressions that motivate. When he’s not at Two Rivers, you might find him along a trout stream in Siberian Russia. You can drop Drew a line at drewj@2rm.com